08.19.09

Will the Taliban Rock the Vote?

In a report from the streets of Kabul, Kim Barker says Thursday’s Afghan elections could bring more fear and violence—no matter who wins.

Wednesday was Independence Day in Afghanistan, but no one was celebrating. Instead, most shops were shuttered. The notoriously jammed streets of Kabul were eerily empty of donkey carts and Land Cruisers. And the few Afghans selling melons, watches, and cellphone credits said they may not vote for president.

“We can’t trust the security situation,” said Fardin Fida, 21 years old, himself a security guard. “We are too scared.”

It’s not difficult to see why. In the days leading up to Thursday’s landmark presidential election, insurgents have staged two spectacular suicide attacks in heavily guarded Kabul and launched rockets that slammed inside the presidential palace grounds and a police compound.

Taliban threats overshadow the election even more than the giant camera-equipped white blimp hovering over Kabul, so much so that the Afghan government barred the media from reporting violence at polling stations during election day. Apparently, if a bomb explodes in the middle of a polling station and no one reports it, it doesn’t count. Nuts to that, the Afghan media replied, vowing to report anything that happened.

“If Karzai wins, there could be demonstrations and violence,” Popal said. “No one will believe it. And if that happens, maybe I will participate.”

While the Taliban have threatened to disrupt the past two elections and failed, many Afghans believe their threats are more credible this time around because their reputation is at stake. If the Taliban don’t pull off some sort of spectacular attack Thursday, they will be perceived as weak.

To protect Kabul from possible attacks, cameras have been installed at every entrance into the city, and hundreds of police have been deployed in a so-called ring of steel around the capital.

But election-day violence is just one of the problems threatening the outcome of this election, only the second in Afghan history. While incumbent President Hamid Karzai is still widely favored to win, he is deeply unpopular, blamed for a lackadaisical leadership style that has failed to assert power outside Kabul and paved the way for rampant corruption.

Fraud in Thursday’s election is a given. Even though 17 million Afghan voters are registered, as many as three million of those voters may not exist. In one registration phase, the independent Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan documented problems in 85 percent of registration centers. The running joke is that democracy has flourished so much in Afghanistan, even the kids have signed up to vote, and in certain districts, more people are registered to vote than live there. The number of women registered in some conservative areas, where women are traditionally not allowed out of the house, is through the roof. In certain places, it’s possible to buy election cards—that is, if anybody wants them.

When it comes to Afghanistan, international election observers have been told to stop using the phrase “free and fair election.” Instead, they are striving for one that is “credible,” although it is unclear how that will be measured.

In parts of the south, polls will not open because it’s simply too dangerous. Many Pashtuns, who traditionally have determined who leads Afghanistan, will not be able to vote—or will not want to—because of Taliban threats.

If Karzai wins outright Thursday, his closest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, a former leader of the Northern Alliance, has already raised the specter of fraud. Considering that Afghanistan has no history of peaceful protests, that could mean violent riots when the results are announced. And already, Abdullah has said he cannot control his supporters, a message that many interpret as an encouragement to rampage.

Asadullah Popal, 21, an Abdullah supporter who sold lighters made of bullets from a street cart Wednesday, said if Karzai won a majority of votes Thursday, he would not believe it.

“If Karzai wins, there could be demonstrations and violence,” Popal said. “No one will believe it. And if that happens, maybe I will participate.”

Afghans are already spreading rumors about where the violence might hit. (One rumor circulating in Kabul says it could start at a Chinese restaurant near Butcher Street.) Already, some Afghans have taken their money out of the banks. At least one car dealership removed the tires from its cars, so the cars cannot be stolen or pushed into the street and set on fire.

The winner also would lack a legitimate mandate, considered essential, especially as the U.S. ramps up its mission here and President Barack Obama tries to convince an increasingly squeamish American public why Afghanistan is so important. There are now 101,000 international troops here, including 68,000 Americans, the highest number ever. But last month, not coincidentally, there were also a record number of international troop casualties, largely from roadside bombs.

Karzai has tried to win votes and a mandate wherever he can. He has made promises to any warlord he can find, much to the disappointment of average Afghans, who hate the warlords even more than the Taliban for their savagery during the country’s civil war. The names of the various warlords who have endorsed Karzai read almost like a most-wanted list from Human Rights Watch. But in Afghanistan, many people still vote for whomever they’re told to vote for, especially if the person doing the telling has a lot of guns.

Karzai must win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election, which would be held later in the fall. Two recent polls suggested that Karzai would win 44 or 45 percent. But with 38 candidates, voter cards for sale, and insurgents threatening to cut off the inked fingers of anyone who votes, the outcome is anyone’s guess.

Preliminary results were originally supposed to be announced within two days, but that date has already been pushed back to September 3. Many Afghans are worried about a rerun of riots from May 2006—when peaceful demonstrations after a U.S. military cargo truck rammed into a traffic jam turned into riots, largely led by Northern Alliance supporters upset that Karzai had sidelined most leaders of the former Tajik-dominated militia, credited with helping overthrow the Taliban.

And although fears of violence on Thursday are high, any violence from Karzai’s political opponents when results are announced could pose a far more serious threat to the fledgling democracy than a few suicide bombs.

For almost five years, Kim Barker was the South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, directing coverage of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. After the Tribune decided to cut back on foreign coverage, Barker quit in May to write a book and become the Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.